HIGH TENSION: A Film By Alexander Aja (2003)Annika Barranti sums it up best. 'There are a couple of standard horror movie tricks (or clichés, if you must) that really bother me,' she says. 'One is the twist ending. They tend to either be really obvious or make absolutely no sense. There are exceptions, of course, but few and far between.' She embodies my deepest issue with 2003's French grindhouse flick High Tension.
The 'twist' at the end serves little purpose beyond ascribing to an increasingly popular (and even somewhat expected) cliché. Had the film eschewed this cliché, it would have been far better. In the 'Making of...' featurette, director Alexander Aja states that the original screenplay was originally different. The film was going to be a story told by Marie from the hospital about a violent psychopath who attacked Alex's family and herself. At the end of the film, it would have been revealed that her entire story was a lie, and that it was indeed Marie who was the killer. This idea has potential that the final cut simply does not.
Criticisms have been made against the film accusing it of ultimately expressing an extremely homophobic message. '...what had been a tale of revenge and fearless loyalty becomes a fantasy of lesbian lust gone horribly awry.' (1) I can't help but disagree with this interpretation. The story does indeed involve a 'twist': the revelation being that 'The Killer' is actually a visually mimetic character representing a fragment of Marie's psychopathic personality.
The argument that this aspect of her disturbed psyche is a result of her possibly latent lesbianism is ridiculous. Nothing in the film specifically seeks to relate lesbianism and psychopathology with one another. Psychopathology is not the result of a sexual orientation, and I don't think that the director would attempt to assert otherwise. At the very least, nothing in the film indicates that this would be the case. Were Marie instead a male, I doubt it would be argued that the film was guilty of specifically correlating heterosexuality to psychopathology.
Rather than making any claims about sexual orientation, High Tension does something that few horror films have the guts to. Despite being flawed on a number of levels, it provides the audience with a perspective not usually seen: in actuality not the perspective of the victim, but that of an element of the killer's personality. To a first-time viewer, there is little that hints of this later development. I'm not arguing that the film illustrated this perspective flawlessly, but it was a decent try.
Notice that I shy away from referring to High Tension as an intelligent film. Surely I admit that the film is well-made on every front from direction and acting (with special props going to actress Cécile De France) to artistic and musical production. Unfortunately, as with my reviews of many horror films, High Tension fails to achieve any intellectual depth. I would argue that it doesn't even attempt to. Stylish, yes, artistic, yes, even beautiful, in its way, High Tension doesn't try to present itself as an intellectual film. The generally reviled 'twist' is ultimately not the medium of some statement but rather an (unfortunately) failed attempt at further disorienting the audience.
Ultimately, I think that High Tension is one of the better horror films I have seen in the past couple of years. If considered, perhaps many insights could be made about the film, but relegating the film to 'a knuckle-headed journey into the heart of homophobia', or even just another in an increasingly long chain of 'torture flicks', is a mistake.
This is a brutally unpleasant, ultimately artistic work of expressionistic violence.